(b. 1935), poet, music critic and historian, and arts administrator.
Alfred B. Spellman has cut a wide swath in the world of the arts as a music critic, poet, administrator, and educator. “It's a function of social consciousness,” he said in a 1992 interview (Dance/USA Journal, Winter 1992), “to provide art, strong art.” The creation, identification, and support of “strong art” have been the alternating currents of Spellman's career, whose highlights include the publication of his book of poems, The Beautiful Days, in 1965, the appearance of his classic Black Music: Four Lives (as Four Lives in the BeBop Business) in 1966, and his two decades of service at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
One of two sons of the schoolteachers Alfred and Rosa Bailey Spellman, Alfred B. Spellman was born 12 August 1935 in his grandmother's house in Nixonton, a hamlet outside Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Perhaps because of his parents' academic focus, Spellman was little challenged by the assignments at the public schools he attended. Some of his early memorable impressions of art and performance were provided by his father's paintings and, during his adolescence, by his success in sliding under the canvas tents of the traveling “Silas Green” blues troupe to see the half-dressed female dancers and ribald comics.
He became seriously interested in writing after entering Howard University in 1952. Classmates such as Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) were his sounding boards and fellow cultural explorers. A famed instructor, Sterling A. Brown, helped develop his interest in jazz and in the relationship between literary and oral traditions in African American culture. In 1958, at Baraka's urging, Spellman left Howard to seek his fortune in New York City. He had earned a BA in political science and history and begun course work in law. He remained in New York until 1967—working in bookstores, writing poetry, and, beginning in the early 1960s, hosting a WBAI radio morning show called “Where It's At.”
The Beautiful Days appeared with an introductory note by Frank O'Hara praising Spellman for cutting “through a lot of contemporary nonsense to what is actually happening to him.” What actually happens to Spellman in the best poems is extraordinary. In “‘64 like a mirror in a darkroom. ’63 like a mirror in a house after,” he measures his own vitality by his ability to continue caring about the “newly dead.”
Four jazz musicians Spellman appears to have understood by their minds' “flutter” and their style of survival—Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Jackie McLean, and Herbie Nichols—are the subjects of Black Music, which enumerates, on the one hand, the tribulations of working in the jazz world, and, on the other hand, the ferocious will needed to avoid being silenced or destroyed. A reviewer for Library Journal found in the four interlocked portraits a “well reasoned statement of the position of the Negro in modern jazz and in modern America as well.”
Spellman has said he wrote in defense of his subjects, who struggled variously against the failure of their peers, their reviewers, and existing funding organizations to acknowledge not only their brilliance, but even their competence. The urgency of his project is conveyed by his concluding remarks on Herbie Nichols: “It was typical of Herbie Nichols' life that Metronome, the magazine for which I was preparing the first article ever written on him, folded before the article could be published. By the time I placed it elsewhere, Herbie had died.”